In the small farming village of Beachburg, Ontario, in the Ottawa Valley, which they call Canada's hockey cradle, the Pee Wees arrive early for an annual event that brings everything else for square miles to a halt and focuses everyone's attention on center ice.
It's the annual Beachburg Pee Wee tournament, glorious to win but certainly not the Stanley Cup — although you would not know it from the atmosphere in the rink. This is no major-league arena where the stands are heated. It was built by villagers who take their hockey seriously.
You can see your breath here — unless you are holding your breath. And with the score tied at 0-0, everyone is holding their breath.
Everyone, that is, until a hockey father spots an incident on the ice that he is certain should have resulted in a penalty, which would give his son's team the advantage. "C'mon, ref! " he yelled.
The referee ignored the remark. If the kids heard it, they ignored it and just skated on — the same way many of them have learned to steel themselves against comments and screams coming from the stands, coming from parents who so often admonish them for their caliber of play.
And that's the problem. The kids have come out to play a game. Some of the parents have come out with dreams that their kids will someday make it in the National Hockey League and earn millions.
Walter Gretzky has stories about parents that he loves to share. Stories about moms who have told him under no uncertain terms that her child is going to be, well, the next Wayne Gretzky. Walter Gretzky, the father of the hockey legend, is horrified.
"It has to be fun," he said. "Because if it's not fun for them, they just won't want to play anymore. Whether it's a boy or a girl, they'll just pack it in."
Kids: ‘Enough Is Enough’
And that's becoming a real problem in hockey. Too much pressure from the parents is provoking many kids to say enough is enough.
Rick Everding is a hockey dad who is disgusted by the whole business. "Some kids, by the time they get to 15 or 16, they don't even want to go near the ice," he said.
The Canadian Hockey Association has finally taken notice of what's been going on in the stands and has just released an ad campaign telling parents to back off and reminding them it's a game for kids.
The theme of the campaign raises the question: What if the roles were reversed and the children behaved like the parents?
In one ad, a dad and his buddies are playing golf. Dad is getting ready to putt when his son storms out on the green and berates him. "C'mon Dad, focus! Widen your stance a little! Don't slouch!"
Dad's friends look embarrassed, and it doesn't get any better when he misses the putt. "That was pathetic," charges his son.
In yet another ad, two moms in a supermarket accidentally bump shopping carts. It's clearly an accident, but then a daughter berates her mom. "Are you going to let her get away with that? Stand up for yourself!"
And when mom and virtually everyone in the store is clearly embarrassed, the ad ends with the little girl banging on a glass door in the food section chanting, "Fight, fight, fight!"
Refs Used to Abuse
Nancy Glofcheskie is a hockey mom at the Beachburg tournament. She's seen the ads and hopes that others see them too.
"It might make them wake up and think 'hey, that's me doing that,'" she said. "'I'm the idiot in the stands screaming at the referee.'"
There is no shortage of idiots screaming at referees. Minor hockey officials are a hybrid of volunteer — or low-paid near-volunteer — members of the community who come out because they love the game or love kids. But many have been walking away from the rink and not coming back because they have taken too much abuse from parents.
"You just kind of ignore it," said Neil Carter, who became a referee in Beachburg five years ago, when there was a shortage. "These parents act the way you'd never see them act anywhere else. It seems they come into a rink and they think they can just scream and yell at you."
The Canadian Hockey Association has an ad that deals with abusing referees, too. In it, a police officer pulls over a dad and tells him he made an illegal turn. And then the son in the back seat chimes in: "That call stinks. You stink! Dad, tell him that call was crap."
The Arnprior Predators won the Beachburg tournament. The players were ecstatic. The losing team left the ice a little glum, but not nearly as sad as some of the parents who came to the tournament expecting more from their children.
The new ad campaign has only been out for a week. It will take longer than that for all of the parents to remember that it's only a game for kids and therefore too important to take so seriously.